Thursday, January 1, 2009

Is Food less safe these days? Part 2

You'll find Part 1 in the panel below this.

: The globalized food supply means that raw materials may be processed outside of our own country and the foods transported to our local suppliers for distribution. The opportunities for poor process control and contamination are again significant. Many countries rely heavily on imports of food. The development of Chinese industry means that these imports are often sourced from China, though not exclusively. The Chinese government is moving to improve control over food manufacture, but faces an uphill battle in such a large country with so many diverse regulatory authorities.

Greed: The huge demand for food is a temptation for some unscrupulous manufacturers to try to make a fast buck by adulterating food or passing off poor quality materials. The prime example in our time is the use of melamine to increase the apparent protein content of milk and pet food. See here However, food fraud has been going on literally for centuries.

Adulteration of food is usually done with inferior materials to increase the bulk of the real item and thus increase profits. In 1820, a German scientist Frederick Accum published his book “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons”. He described sloe leaves added to tea, lozenges made from pipe clay, custards poisoned with laurel leaves, floor sweepings mixed into pepper and copper used to colour pickles green.

In 1857 Arthur Hill Hassal, an English physician and microscopist, wrote a book “Adulterations Detected, or Plain Instructions for the Discovery of Frauds in Food and Medicine”. He noted that “Adulteration prevails in nearly all articles which it is worth while to adulterate, whether it is food, drink or drugs”. Watering of milk or of “cream ice” was a popular activity, but clay and dust were used to bulk up many foods. These days, companies have analytical techniques to detect adulteration of food, but this works only if the company is not involved in the fraud. Government organizations like the New Zealand Food Safety Authority and the US Food and Drug Administration cannot guarantee the safety of foods by end product testing. See here The best that can be achieved is management of food safety through risk management programmes.

The following new book offers interesting reading: Wilson B (2008). “Swindled: the dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee”. London: John Murray Publishers.

In the final, Part 3: click here:  Communication and Evolution

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